Chapter 2.Work: Meaning


What They Forget to Teach You at School

The modern world treats education with unique seriousness. Never in the history of humanity have so much thought and so many resources been devoted to the development of the minds of the next generation. In all advanced nations, until a human is 21 or so, there is little else to do other than study. In sensible households, homework has the power of a sacrament. An army of teachers and educators, colleges and pedagogical bureaucrats is set up to feed industrial quantities of the young through complex staging posts of scholastic achievement. Politicians on every side of the spectrum outstrip each other to prove their devotion to the educational cause. The central government-mandated examinations claim a power to determine the course of our whole lives; the dread they provoke can be felt in dawn terrors decades after the event. It may, in rare, tragic but telling instances, feel like there is simply nothing left to live for if the grades go wrong.

And yet despite all this, it is very rare to find a thoughtful adult who – by middle age or earlier – does not at certain moments of crisis and difficulty look back in a somewhat puzzled and even incensed ways at their school years and wonder why, amidst all the study, the disciplines, the earnest commitments and the panic, so much managed to be passed over in silence. How come, in all those hours sitting in classrooms, did certain fundamental concepts and notions that would (it now seems) have been so important to a half way decent life somehow slip through the net? How come there was so much time for calculus, the erosion of the upper glacial layer, the politics of the Burgundian states of the 1400s, the poetry of Emily Dickinson and trigonometric equations, and yet so little time for a range of puzzles that have rendered the passage through grown up life so tricky? Why – in short – did no one ever tell us?

There are, at present, few places for this thought to go. The debate is overwhelmingly focused on how best to deliver an education to a child; not what he or she should be educated in. School curricula are not reverse engineered from the actual dilemmas of adult life. The subjects in the timetable, and their distribution across the week, in no way reflect what will actually go on to make life such a trial; otherwise, we would be hearing a lot more from our teachers about how to approach the dilemmas of relationships, the sorrows of our careers, the tensions of families and the terrors of mortality… To the surprise of any visiting alien, humans blithely educate themselves as if the chief requirement of adulthood were the possession of a set of technical skills, without acknowledging the fact that what mostly runs us into the sands is not any shortfall in our knowledge of matrix algebra or the French pluperfect but our inability to master what we could call the emotional dimensions of our lives: our understanding of ourselves, our capacity to deal with our lovers, children and colleagues, our degrees of self-confidence, our handle on calm and self-compassion. It is failures in these zones that, far more than anything we might pick up at the best schools and universities, ensures the repeated betrayal of humanity’s best hopes for itself.

When we turn over the thought of what we should have learnt, it typically feels far too late, and far too hopeless. Despite our vigour at innovation in so many areas of the economy, a lethargy can fall over education. It is meekly assumed that it may simply be impossible to teach ourselves the sort of emotional skills whose absence we pay such a heavy price for. As the heirs of a misplaced Romantic philosophy, we assume that we should be guided in the emotional realm by our untutored feelings, that one couldn’t possibly instruct anyone in love or wisdom, fulfilment or kindness, that these have to be the occasional and sporadic fruits of time, not concepts that can be harvested systematically from the start. The collective cost of this resignation is vast. It means that every new generation must collide afresh with problems that are, in theory, already worked out in the minds of their aged predecessors. Every young person is compelled once again to discover, in midnight sobs, what is already theoretically very well known about ending relationships, finding a career or dealing with damaged but well-meaning parents. We set ourselves up on our individual islands, and force ourselves – with needless pain – to reinvent the wheel and rediscover fire. The education system is, in this sense at least, the purveyor of a willed myopia. The focus on those glaciers and the laws of motion become unwitting excuses not to learn the laws of kindness or the principles of family diplomacy. The struggles at court in early modern Europe blind us to the need to make time to learn the history of our own anger and the mastery of the sources of despair.

It is in this context that The School of Life sets itself up, both in its name and its practical activities, as a provocation; a reminder that the task of a school must stretch far beyond the current agreed curriculum to encompass everything with the power to wreck an adult’s life. The emphasis on the word ‘forget’ in the title is not coincidental, it draws attention to the essentially haphazard ways in which we have let important topics fall outside the standard educational remit. There is no conspiracy, that would almost be easier, it is just a form of oversight and happenstance. There is no good or interesting reason why we have to wait for quite so long to discover lessons that might have made such a difference – nor is there a need for every one of us to stumble around in such darkness when brightly illuminated accounts and theories already exist. 

Some of what we have to suffer in this life is unavoidable; the premise of the School of Life is that a lot more than we might ever have dared to hope is, with the right sort of homework in hand, absolutely not.

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